Promise programs provide free college

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Dr. Diane Snyder, vice chancellor of finance and administration, introduces the AlamoPROMISE program at the regular board meeting Feb. 27 at Killen. The program would provide free college tuition, including fees and books, for the first two years. The program is modeled after Tennessee Promise, which showed a 74 percent FAFSA completion and a 13 percent increase in college enrollment. Deandra Gonzalez

Vice chancellor says ideal program should not be limited to economically disadvantaged students.

By Alison Graef

Dr. Diane Snyder, vice chancellor for finance and administration, said the key to a successful free college program in San Antonio is simplicity and awareness. Her remarks were at the Feb. 27 board meeting at Killen Center.

Former President Barack Obama first proposed America’s College Promise as a federal program in January 2015, which was modeled after Tennessee’s free college scholarship program, Tennessee Promise.

Snyder said many states have started offering free college programs, and it is also happening at local levels.

“It really never came to fruition at a federal level … but that didn’t stop the trend that’s been happening across the nation,” Snyder said. “Even if nothing happens at a state level to support something here in a big way, we can do something for San Antonio.”

Tennessee Promise is a state-funded scholarship program that covers the cost of tuition and fees for two-year colleges in Tennessee. It operates on a “last-dollar” model, providing aid that covers whatever is left over after scholarships and grants are applied. The program is funded by the state lottery. Snyder said the Tennessee program’s model stood out to her because its requirements are simple.

“Don’t try to burden it with GPA requirements or all these other things,” Snyder said. “If it’s a high school senior, they get free college tuition.”

Snyder said Tennessee is now No. 1 in the nation for FAFSA completion with a 74 percent completion rate and has seen a 13 percent increase in college enrollment in the first two years following the start of the program.

For a successful program, she said, it would be important to increase awareness of grants available to students — that many students don’t even consider going to college because they think they can’t afford it.

“That’s the key part here: creating a college-going culture where every senior sees it possible to complete the FAFSA and get some college,” Snyder said.

As a part of the Tennessee program, each student is assigned a mentor to help with the college admission process and must attend mentorship meetings to remain eligible. Students must maintain at least a 2.0 grade-point average and complete eight hours of community service per semester enrolled.

Snyder said the cost of “free” college can be covered by government, businesses, taxpayers and donors. She said most programs rely on Pell Grant funding.

She said Texas currently has about $5 million in the Texas Public Education Grant (TPEG) that could go toward funding the program.

“What we’re saying is Pell first, and then you can use TPEG for those who are in that middle group who can’t get full Pell,” Snyder said.

She said Pell and TPEG could be used for everyone except those who complete the FAFSA indicating an expected family contribution of $10,000 or above.

She said if the program in San Antonio began by funding tuition for seniors from 26 local, economically disadvantaged high schools, Pell and grant money would cover all tuition except $400,000 annually.

“As we move to the other high schools, that’s where we’re going to need some momentum with community partners and fundraising … to really build the scholarships,” Snyder said.

She said she thinks the program’s strength is in helping middle class families who, because of their income, do not qualify for grants but also struggle to afford college.

“It’s the middle class that are really struggling,” Snyder said.

Chancellor Bruce Leslie has spoken to Mayor Ron Nirenberg, the Hispanic Chamber and Alamo Colleges Foundation about the possibility of creating a college promise program. He said they are only in the first steps of discussing possibilities.

“This is a preliminary presentation, but I want it to get on the table because I think this is very exciting,” Leslie said.


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